Voters across Britain rejected the Coalition with big losses for both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Lindsey German looks at why London bucked the trend by re-electing Boris Johnson
London has elected a mayor who stands for wealth and privilege, who fought to reduce the top rate of tax for the very wealthiest, and who is no friend of the unions. Boris Johnson was helped into office by the London evening paper, the Standard, whose front page endorsed him with barely a mention that he was a Tory, saying instead that he stood up to government.
Supporters of Ken Livingstone will be bitterly disappointed that he narrowly lost his race. The closeness of the result was not expected, given the polls showing Johnson well ahead, and given the media barrage against Ken, some of it generated by fellow Labour Party members. His defeat particularly rankles since in both the general election in 2010 and yesterday, votes showed that London is a strong Labour city. The Tories and Boris should be wary of crowing over his election or claiming that it gives him a mandate for right wing policies. Johnson only gained 44% of first preference votes on a 38% turnout - just over 1 million of of London's 5.8 million electorate voted for him.
The London elections went right up to the wire. Perhaps the most exciting part of the campaign was the count itself as a Labour resurgence led to the ousting of two of Boris Johnson’s most trusted Tory henchmen, including the deputy mayor, from their London Assembly constituency seats, saw a swing to Labour on the Assembly list and resulted in a much closer race than expected between Johnson and Livingstone. Green Party mayoral candidate Jenny Jones came a very creditable third, beating Libdem Brian Paddick into fourth place.
In most respects the London picture mirrors that across the rest of Britain. Labour has done well, admittedly on a very low turnout, winning a number of councils, including in the supposedly unwinnable south of England. Labour won a clear majority on Glasgow City Council, dealing a blow to the well prepared Tory and media narrative that loss of Glasgow and the London mayor on May 3 would mark the end of Ed Miliband. Even with Ken losing, it is clear that the big losers on May 3 were the government parties. Libdems had the worst result in their existence and the Tories have been hammered.
The reasons for the Coalition’s unpopularity are obvious. The effects of the budget six weeks ago, with tax cuts for the wealthiest and tax increases for some pensioners, the growing awareness of the effects of austerity on some of the poorest and most needy people, the widespread perception that the government is run by callous posh boys who neither know nor care about the lives of ordinary people . The sight of Tory MPs defending Rupert Murdoch to the hilt in the week of the election cannot have helped Tory chances.
Occasionally, anger at government policies led to votes for a left alternative, as when George Galloway’s Respect party won five seats in Bradford, and socialist Michael Lavalette regained his seat in Preston. But in most cases, working class discontent was expressed through voting Labour, which was perceived, whatever its weaknesses, as standing up more for working people.
So why did Boris buck the trend and win election when so many Tories were being swept away? The first conundrum about the mayoral contest is that both Boris and Ken - known universally by their first names - are not totally identified with their parties. Their ratings do not necessarily reflect party ratings. Therefore Boris, a well known television celebrity, has done better than his party while this time Ken has lagged behind his party’s support.
The election campaign was lacklustre, portrayed by the media and sometimes by candidates themselves as about personalities, rivalries and all manner of trivia. Mayoral campaigns, especially in a constituency of millions, have always had this presidential element to them. It may be that the clear rejection of directly elected mayors in referenda in other cities is in part a response to the way in which mayoral politics have been conducted in London.
Ken had some good policies, especially cuts in transport fares and restoring EMA. But this election hasn’t really been policy driven. It may be that the fare cuts, which briefly put him ahead in the polls when announced, simply were not enough to make a big difference to Londoners. Someone with a zones one and two travel card (only covering central and inner London) will pay £112 a month for the privilege. The poor are increasingly priced off the tube and many will travel by bus - usually at least an hour’s journey – to get to work.
But he suffered from questions about his tax arrangements, because he (legally but not very sensibly) paid less tax by putting his earnings through a company. He has also never shaken off his unpopularity especially among some Jewish Londoners, exacerbated by a some unfortunate comments which he allowed to drag on without apologising.
Perhaps the major problem facing the mayor, however, is that the post carries very little power. Most money is raised through central government. The mayor has no control over, for example, whether tenants can be moved out of London to areas like Stoke on Trent, as some councils have proposed. When no real politics are involved, then questions of age, dress, temper, celebrity come to the fore. After 12 years, voters are also more aware of the limitations of mayoral power.
Ken’s belated attempts to bring the campaign onto more political ground, and turning it into a straight Labour-Tory fight, appears to have been successful in narrowing the gap between the two, but at the end failed to overcome it.
While most on the left backed Ken, he faced an unpleasant campaign from the Blairites in the party, several of them saying publicly that they would not vote for him. They were joined by a motley crew from the House of Lords including Lord Sugar (it will have surprised many that he was a Labour peer in the first place). The Labour blogger Dan Hodges, interviewed on the BBC on election night, continued his campaign against Ken to the bitter end.
The independent candidate, Siobhan Benita, was favoured by much of the media and some Blairites. A Whitehall career civil servant who portrayed herself as an outsider but whose closest political adviser was the former head of the Cabinet Office Gus O’Donnell, she was portrayed as the acceptable vote for those Labourites who wouldn’t vote Ken.
But Ken’s campaign also failed to catch fire, and he faced the difficulty that some Labour voters, many of whom defied their party to vote him in when he stood against Tony Blair’s wishes as an independent in 2000, now seemed to have turned against him.
The mayoral result is bad for London. Fare cuts and EMA would have made a difference to working class Londoners. All those who oppose war and Islamophobia have lost a voice in City Hall. Boris Johnson is no different from Cameron and Osborne in his class background or in his intentions. He will follow the interests of the City, not of working people in London.
Otherwise the Assembly votes were good for the Greens and for Labour. They were very bad for the BNP, which lost its seat on the Assembly. UKIP trailed behind the Greens, Libdems and Benita.
The results overall will put pressure on Cameron to make concessions to the right of his party, who are demanding more ‘red blooded’ Tory policies. We can expect more of the class war policies which have so characterised this government. Boris will probably become more openly right wing, given the clamour against Cameron from Tory grassroots and that he doesn’t face election for four years.
The votes demonstrate that the Tories and Boris have no real mandate in London. The makeup of the Assembly is not good for Boris but we shouldn’t rely on a fight against Tory policies being led from there. The fight to reverse the cuts and austerity will have to be on the streets and in the unions. And the results clearly demonstrate that Londoners, like so many people around Britain, reject Clegg and Cameron’s policies.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Born to rule over us? – weekly briefing
- Lip service to the left, but moves to the right - weekly briefing
- Do not be fooled: Trump is the problem
- Soleimani assassination is an act of war
- Past mistakes, future opportunities - weekly briefing
- What we should take from the election and what we do next
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December